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Building new roads will only harm New Hampshire

Manchester Union Leader
Friday, June 25, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

New Hampshire is officially set to build more roads. There may not be enough money to pay for every project on the state´s wish list, but anticipated revenues for highway building over the next decade - $1.5 billion - will still pour a lot of asphalt.

Whatever benefits the new traffic lanes and ramps will bring, sprawling development is sure to accompany them. According to a 2001 report by the Brookings Institution, the Manchester-Nashua metropolitan area grew 28 percent in population between 1982 and 1997, but consumed 70 percent more land to do it.

With the widening of I-93, the corridor communities are expected to gain about 35 percent more residents during the next two decades. Based on current development trends, that means anywhere from 70 to 90 percent more land will be consumed. Widening I-93 is also sure to fuel development north of Manchester, because easier access will encourage developers to leapfrog the congested areas south of the city.

Growth can be a great thing, but not when it obliterates the natural features that attract people and jobs in the first place. It is not new residents that threaten New Hampshire´s quality of life - it´s the car-dependent lifestyle those people will bring with them.

Compare a car and a person. A car takes up about 50 times more space than a pedestrian. That´s at rest. Once a car starts moving, it needs room to maneuver. A lot of room. At 50 miles per hour, a car´s need for space expands to the footprint of a small house. The maximum number of cars that can move along one traffic lane, whether it´s Elm Street in Manchester or I-93 in the White Mountains, is 2,000 cars per hour. That´s a lot of car flow, but even with two people in each vehicle, that´s not a lot of people flow. As a result, New Hampshire uses an enormous amount of asphalt simply to move its citizens from one place to another.

Of course, motorists must park their cars at every destination. Experts estimate we have six to seven parking spaces for every car. That´s how car-oriented development turns landscapes into junkscapes - by stringing out stores, offices and schools along our highways, for easy access by car, and placing an ample parking lot in front of every one.

Traditionally, New Hampshire´s towns were built in compact areas, on a human scale rather than a car scale. If new development can be molded to a human scale once again, New Hampshire can accommodate all the population growth it´s going to have for decades to come without losing vast areas of open space. It can reclaim derelict land and greatly improve the appearance and efficiency of the Granite State.

To foster human-scale communities, we need to rethink highway building and start retrofitting our existing infrastructure with more walkways and bikeways. New Hampshire is pursuing that goal, but far more can be done. In Pennsylvania, where I live, our Department of Transportation has finally recognized that endless highway building is not sustainable. Recently, the department launched a four-year, $200 million program to create more sidewalks and greenways so people can walk or bicycle for some of their trips.

Last year, New Hampshire lost its most famous icon when the Great Stone Face fell from its perch. The paving over of the New Hampshire landscape may lack the drama and the shocking suddenness of that event, but it will prove far more devastating in the long run.

Ever more highways may lead to places New Hampshire doesn´t want to go. Human-scale communities - the road less traveled - may bring a better future.



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